“We stand on mighty shoulders,” Barbara Major, the founder of Citizens United for Economic Equity said during the opening plenary of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center (GNOFHAC)’s 12th annual Fit For a King Fair Housing Summit last week. “You don’t do this kind of work by yourself.”
The collective and intersectional nature of the fair housing movement in New Orleans became clear throughout the day, as attendees--including VOTE staff--heard from civil rights legends and local community activists.
“This is what a movement is,” Major continued. “It’s about hearing everyone’s voice at the table.”
GNOFHAC is a organization working to eradicate housing discrimination. Much like VOTE’s, their strategy includes education and outreach, policy work, litigation, and homeowner protection programs. The Fit For a King conference serves as a space to take stock of the movement today while honoring its connection to Dr. King Jr.’s struggle for justice.
To couch this movement in its deep historical roots, the opening panel included three powerful women changemakers: Dodie Smith-Simmons, Barbara Major, and Angela Kinlaw.
We can’t talk about fair housing without talking about the civil rights movement.
Smith-Simmons got her start in the 1950s. She was a member of the NAACP youth council and later part of New Orleans’ CORE chapter. Through CORE, Smith-Simmons joined the Freedom Riders in the ’60s.
“At a lot of rallies we would sing ‘May Be the Last Time,’” she recalled, singing a few lines. “We sang that song because we didn’t know if we were coming back.” Smith-Simmons, at 75 years old, keeps coming back to show up as a role model for younger activists. “I’m still dancing,” she assured the audience.
We can’t talk about fair housing without talking about food justice.
Major began organizing while living in the Desire housing projects. When her mother found her doing her first action--protesting at a grocery store nearby--she forced her to come home. “My mama said to me, ‘you keep taking care of the people.’,” she said. “She understood, she was just scared.”
Since then, Major has been involved in fighting for hunger and food security, health equity and housing issues. She trains new leaders with love and compassion, so that they can pick up the work where she leaves off.
We can’t talk about fair housing without talking about economic revolution.
Kinlaw advocates for issues like relocating Gordon Plaza residents, ending police brutality and removing Confederate monuments, along with the racism they represent. “I see myself as an organizer for the wellbeing of humanity,” Kinlaw explained. That means understanding the interconnection of all forms of injustice, and tackling the underlying systemic oppression instead of putting bandaids on individual issues.
Kinlaw was an educator for many years before becoming a community activist outside school walls. When people tell her she’s too radical, Kinlaw contends that “it takes a creative mind to imagine a world we have not yet seen.” She believes deeply that the fair housing and workers’ rights movements must be aligned.
Even though we had not yet met you, we loved you.
Breakout sessions spanned the topics of eviction, discrimination against LGBTQ+ people in housing, and displacement and climate justice.
We can’t talk about fair housing without talking about climate change.
Colette Pichon Battle of the Gulf Coast Center for Law and Policy led the session on displacement and climate change--a topic close to home for all Louisianans. The Center was founded in 2005, right after Hurricane Katrina, when there was a growing need for disaster relief legal services. Since then, the organization has expanded to address equitable disaster recovery, sustainable economies and energy, water equity, and land labor.
Despite the political games that stifle progress on the issue, it is clear that extractive industries, and extravagant consumption practices, are the root causes of climate change.
“We’re talking about what you consume and what I consume,” Battle explained. “If we don’t have leadership that will change, then the people have to change.”
Battle showed the shocking rate of land loss in Southern Louisiana, a result of both global warming, (i.e. sea levels rising), and extractive oil and gas industries, (which are causing land to sink). Estimates tell us that by 2050, 250 million people will be displaced by climate change--a group that includes all residents of southern Louisiana. “It’s not just land," she said. "This is people. This is culture.”
We can’t talk about fair housing without talking about agapic energy.
The keynote speaker, Diane Nash, brought us full circle to the civil rights leaders who started this work. Nash joined the civil rights movement as a college student in Nashville. Born and raised in Chicago, Nash had not experienced outright segregation until she moved to the South. It shocked her and called her to action. She became the chairperson of the student sit-in movement in Nashville, and later organized the Freedom Ride from Birmingham to Jackson.
Nash explained that her activism grows out of love. “What Ghandi developed,” she pointed out, “was a way to wage war without violence...waging war with an energy produced by love.”
With Ghandi’s influence in mind, Nash coined the term ‘agapic energy’. It comes from the Greek word ‘agape’, meaning love for humankind. Agapic energy is energy produced by the love of humankind.
The basic principles of agapic energy are that people are never the enemy--ideas, systems, and attitudes are--and that oppression always requires the cooperation of the oppressed. She argued that as soon as oppressed people withdraw their support from the oppressive system, it falls apart. This process happens in six steps: investigation of the system that needs to change, education of constituents, negotiation with the opponent (always with love and respect), demonstration, resistance, and, finally, resolution, to ensure the oppression doesn’t repeat itself in a different form.
Nash spoke with a quiet, confident conviction. “I want you to know that my contemporaries had you in mind when we acted,” she said. “Even though we had not yet met you, we loved you. We wanted to build a better world for you to be born into, and younger generations will look to you to do the same.”
We can’t talk about fair housing without taking action.
The summit ended with a call to action. It is not enough to honor Dr. King Jr.’s legacy, we must do the work.
To participate in this movement, you can join Jane’s Place courtwatch program to ensure evicted tenants get their security deposits back. You can sign up for GNOFHAC’s email list to stay informed on policy initiatives. You can support the Smart Housing Mix by calling your city council member. You can become a member of VOTE’s fair housing coalition.
“Citizens must take the future of this country into their own hands,” Nash concluded. “We need to realize that there is no one to solve the problems but you and me.”
The Loyola Journal of Public Interest Law recently published "To Purify the Ballot": the Racial History of Felon Disenfranchisement in Louisiana by VOTE's own Deputy Director Bruce Reilly. Reilly started writing this article in 2011 as a VOTE member who was new to New Orleans and in his first year at Tulane Law School. During orientation week, he realized that because he was a formerly incarcerated person, he had lost his voting rights. He worked on the paper for nearly three years and, in 2015, VOTE used an expanded version of it to get our all-volunteer legal team on the same page. Thanks to last year's passage of Act 636, Reilly and thousands of other Louisiana citizens on probation or parole will get their voting rights back. We are so proud of our staff and all of their amazing accomplishments!
Click the link above for the full publication text.
As we ring in 2019, we're ready to have our most successful year yet. To do this, though, we first need to look back at how far we've come. Our office was recently graced with Naomi Farve (center), an integral player in VOTE's early roots. In the fall of 1987, our Executive Director Norris Henderson (right) and Voters Organized to Educate Director Checo Yancy (left) were incarcerated at Angola. They were both serving life sentences, which made them eligible to attend the Lifers Banquet, an annual event where people with life sentences could shares their wants, needs and visions with folks on the outside.
That night, as Henderson was giving a presentation about penal reforms that he and other members of the Angola Special Civics Project compiled, he was interrupted by a woman in the audience: Farve. She took the mic from him and vowed to use her position as the newly-elected Representative for House District 101 to carry their demands for reform forth. From there, she introduced House Bill 1709, which made everyone eligible for parole. Though the legislation didn't pass that year, she reintroduced a version of it every year until, in 1990, it passed and became Act 790. Sadly, by then the bill had been modified to make everyone but lifers eligible for parole. On the other hand, the passage of this Act became the foundation that later allowed Henderson, Yancy and other early members of the ASCP--which later became VOTE--to overturn their life sentence convictions and go home free.
We owe an immense amount of gratitude, respect and humility to Farve and other champions like her. Theirs are the shoulders we stand on as we plan for major wins in the years, decades and centuries ahead.
We thank you, too, for being part of this movement. If you'd like to help us start the year off strong, please make a new year donation to our work.